I’m being sold the memory of a weed-eater dream at the speed of August. The motor’s vortical hiss, slowed into an alligator groan. A commercial for the Black and Decker Cutter appears on a split screen, now a quadrant, continuously subdividing, each cell occupied with its own product activity, vying for attention and competing with human physiology, the maxed bladders and empty guts that threaten to spirit us away from our sponsor. A GE dishwasher offers to pamper the china. The Merrill Lynch bull walks into a popular idiom, a commercial space that is shiny but not as clean as ITT’s “Clean Room,” which, as claimed, is quantified a thousand times cleaner than an ER: “hyperclean.” It all seems to be happening at once.
(I am suddenly compelled to trim the patio near the statue of a headless saint by the garden where I once interred my pajama bottoms beneath a geode.)
To the ear, the weed-eater spot could be selling the Buchla 200 synthesizer, if not the work of Suzanne Ciani herself, an electronic-music composer who mastered Don Buchla’s switchboard of patch bays and oscillators. She’s a classically trained pianist who abandoned the keyboard interface (and its muscle memory) to revolutionize music, sometimes anonymously, right under your TV tray. The grid of old TV ads flashed on the screen in A Life in Waves, a documentary about Ciani’s life and career directed by Brett Whitcomb. Now available, it screened at Moogfest at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, North Carolina, last May.
An original plug tuner, Ciani created identities for logos and products in the seventies and eighties as a way to support her own music projects and studio. Brands and their sonic referents may have been owned by the client, but the sounds themselves belonged to a woman whose work was singular in a field that was then undefined: routing signals and ideas into tiny spaces and “microcosmic time slots,” all while creating her own signature in the male-dominated world of advertising. Electronic music was largely mysterious then, a time when a modular synth for “Planetary Peace” would cause a bomb scare at the San Francisco airport. The media was no less baffled, but especially so with a woman behind the controls. “This is an album,” said one awkward TV interviewer, doing his best Perd Hapley. That’s about as far as he got. Cut to a commercial.
I met with Ciani at Moogfest, an annual gathering for workshops, talks, and live performances held in Durham. Our conversation took place immediately after I interviewed DJ Jubilee about her dedicated rave commutes from Fort Lauderdale to Miami as a teenager in the nineties, back in time for school the next morning, asleep at her desk. (Jubilee dropping Burt Fox’s bass remix of the Opus III’s “Fine Day” was a festival highlight.) When performing at the Armory (which also hosted 808 State and Derrick May), Ciani faded in with a synthetic tide. “Nature gives off this confidence that the world works without us. The ocean is always there. But if you decide to listen to it, you can tune in, and get your rhythm, and tune out.” She has an ear for marine life as well, having once imagined underwater acoustics for an aquarium at a high-end mall in Michigan.
Ciani was also in Durham to receive the Moog Innovation Award, the first woman to be recognized with the honor, which came with a Model 15 modular synth. That afternoon, you could’ve walked into the boiler room of a power plant and found her hugging the machine to cheers, as if we’d all just realized that she’d been programming our childhoods, back when opening a bottle of Coke became an unconscious act of listening. The sound had to be part of the taste or you’d find yourself sipping on flat corn syrup.
“She was making those noises household furniture,” says Andy Votel, a close friend of Ciani’s who has been issuing her music through his label Finders Keepers. “She was against urgency. That led to longevity of her career.” Many have been introduced to Ciani through the YouTube babysitter past or, in my case, the sunburst torch logo preceding Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Or maybe that episode of One Life to Live where Megan needed a theme for her battle with lupus. (The ABC soap would also give me the day terrors when using Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s main theme from The Shining for treating Vicki Buchanan’s schizophrenia.) Reissued by Finders Keepers and Dead-Cert Pressings, Voices of Packaged Souls (1970) was music that was never intended to be released, much less objectified on vinyl. It was recorded between midnight and sunup, the prime time slot for the sounds of “hair bleeding, bones growing, love turning.”
Ciani once said that her machines in the studio formed a safe environment against outside noise (then referring to the chaos of Manhattan ambience), a feeling that has been reverbed by the newer generation of female electronic artists like Indiana footwork producer Jlin, Nicky Mao (who, as Hiro Kone, has released one of my favorite albums this year), and Caterina Barbieri. Only now, noise is news, to be filtered, and at times chewed up and spat back into its own face. As Votel noted on Ciani’s work in The Stepford Wives, the sound of a robot housewife having a neurologic breakdown should only be engineered by a woman. “It would have been a travesty if a man had been given that responsibility,” says Votel.
For Ciani, phrases like having a voice and agency had long taken on new meaning through technology (to say nothing of taking on an industry). Part of her—which is also the part that got her into the Pinball Hall of Fame—lives inside the stroboscopic pinball game Xenon. Vocoded and then sampled onto a vocalizer chip called a “daughter card,” hers is the first female voice in the arcade. This distinction may thrill gamers more than it does Ciani herself, though she’s cool with taunting generations of boys out of their lunch money. (A friend of mine was introduced to pinball while in the womb, just hours from the world, his mother, a professional therapist yelling, “You mother funhouse!” back at the machine, smacking flippers in the back of of a deli on Seventy-Second Street.)
For Ciani, the chip could mean changing times and frequencies. Though a pre-transhumanist notion for perpetuating one’s voice, whether inside an Apple II or at the arcade, it was good for business. Economics and physics, to be precise: “It [the chip] requires less information and lower-grade technology to do a lower-pitched male voice. It’s much easier and cheaper. Once chips got more powerful with higher sampling rates, they could handle a female voice—the higher the frequency, the more bits you need.”
Ciani would acquire a “chip agent.” “We were trying to create a royalty system. Put my voice in the chip. Sell the chip.” She said she wanted to be the voice in the elevator. The federal government approached her to do sound design for flight simulators. Meanwhile, AT&T looked for the perfect melody for a long-distance cue. “They [Texas Instruments] were looking at the functionality of these chips—where do you put a vocal sound?”
The second time we spoke, it was over the phone. I was standing by a defunct railroad that once ran through the Blue Ridge Mountains, while Ciani was GPSing her way to a reunion in Northern California. She denies covertly doing the helicopter noises in Apocalypse Now yet confirms that she used to run an 808 drum machine through a vocoder. (Full disclosure: I’m guilty of feeding mythologies through both.) This was not customary studio behavior at the time, but Ciani had access to some prototypes and an commercial-free imagination. So while I was a kid listening to rap with vocoders and 808, she was manipulating both to get the sound of neither. Sorry guys! “I did some wonderful tricks with the vocoder, not using the voice. It’s a filter and it’s going to sample whatever you put in, through its filtered presence. When you’re impacting the filter through the 808 drum kick, you get this wonderful likeness of texture that is rhythmic. I used the drum instead of the voice as the modulator, across a wide range of frequencies. It sounds like chordal strumming.” These 808 strums appear in Seven Waves, an album that had to be released in Japan (and then reissued on an English label) because the American music business didn’t know how to market a female artist who didn’t sing.
Ciani would cobble together several devices for manipulating the human voice for even better pay grade. Her Voice Box on wheels would qualify her as a vocalist in the Screen Actors Guild, a clever way to have a say in her career and worth while disbanding and filtering herself into harmonic textures and layers. “I had a collection of units patched together, where I could use my voice to modify and control any parameter. I could control rhythms—and amplitude and shapes—with my voice. The vocoder was for adding warmth—a melodic sustained wash of a vocal presence. It was sensual. It had this beauty of being somewhere between an instrument and a human presence. It had the subliminal property of being human but also could function musically, in a more abstract way than a vocal. It’s a mapping filter. You get the outline of a filter and map it onto another sound. The voice was a source of controlled finesse.”
“She got a bit Frankenstein with it,” adds Votel. “All while decidedly avoiding the nonhuman.”
Humans have been making DIY voice modifications since the Pako in the Central Vietnamese province of Hue devised a bamboo talk box for songs of romance. Traditionally, the vocoder has not been inclusive. According to early patents filed in the 1930s, the vocoder wasn’t engineered to recognize voices in the higher register, then solely identified as feminine. Eisenhower once mistook his wife, Maime, for an elderly man when it was arranged for her to surprise her husband with birthday wishes over the Pentagon’s encoded phone line. The Women’s Army Corp had the tedious job of translating and transcribing these garbled conversations throughout the war. The vocoder would later transcend its binary constrictions when accessed through Wendy Carlos and Laurie Anderson, or if you happen to be dancing, “Spooks” by Tom Tom Club.
Ciani would collaborate with German synth engineer Harald Bode, who developed a filter band that allowed the vocoder to pick up the airier parts of her speech. “Harald and I became buddies,” Ciani says. “I needed a modification, something less metallic and masculine. Part of that is because you’re not hearing the breathy part of the voice [in the vocoder]. This is usually happening in a very high feminine range. We built a pass-through so my breath could come through with the sound.”
You can hear Ciani through a more standard Bode vocoder in an Atari commercial, where Spring Break teens plug their 5200 system into the beach, perhaps hoping for some mineral conduction. This could’ve been a squint at the failed E.T. cartridges that Atari would later entomb in the desert in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The Atari sky turns into a nuclear mushroom patch while kids blast away at a modular centipede, descending in segments, ever in motion. The girls take off with the boom box playing Ciani playing the eighties. The boys are left in the sand with their joystick jokes.
Ciani and Bode would also begin work on the “negative vocoder,” inspired by (and maybe in spite of) television voice-overs. Though Bode died in 1987, before the project was realized, Ciani still has the specs. “It’s like blue screen for film, where you shoot what you want to remove. Someone will make it soon. Commercials were very compressed forms of audio. The most important thing was the voice-over. The music, in order to satisfy the voice-over presence—they’d just dump it across the board. With the negative vocoder, you could carve out a filtered place where the music could sit. [Music and voice] could live together in maximum presence.” The negative vocoder would’ve placed Ciani’s music (shaped by a voice controller of her own design) on equal earshot with the male voiceover.
While immersed in her commercial gigs and personal studio projects, Ciani toyed with her Voice Box to transform into her Studio 54 alter ego, Steve, a gay environmentalist who wanted the perfect watch. As Steve, she recorded a gospel/house track called “Steve Saves the World” at Starlite Studios in New Jersey. “Steve was an accident—it wasn’t politically correct. There was this magic spot at point 8 on the harmonizer. When I talked normally through that, I became this other person. I didn’t know it was there. Then I used it for personal reasons. Steve wishes you a happy birthday. Steve goes to a party. I become this gay guy. I have a lot of inflection in my voice—it goes up and down, like when a gay male naturally sounds effeminate. Steve made a bunch of records but never released them. The Steve era was early eighties.”
Children in an elementary school in Connecticut performed Steve songs in full costume, based on birthday tapes she’d sent friends. “When I heard myself, I couldn’t write outside of being that person. I’m not Suzanne writing for Steve. Steve has to do it. When I become Steve, Steve does it naturally. I was so thrilled that I was this new person that I’m giddy. He was the sweetest, most caring adorable guy. I get into it. It’s freaky.”
In 1980, Ciani trundled her Voice Box on wheels onto the set of David Letterman’s morning show. Though introduced as a “famous voice distorter,” she had brokered a deal for a more accurate representation—to merely be recognized as an artist working in electronic music. “I told him that I’d do my voice tricks if he let me play my music with the band after.” Fair enough. In the meantime, she finds the combination of patches and knobs to simulate the studio blowing up. She also casually throws Letterman’s voice all over the set, in varying frequencies. The audience loves it. Dave seems disoriented. It’s no longer his show. “This means nothing to anyone but you,” he says. No amount of voice modification could filter out the Letterman snark. When the time came for Ciani to Buchla with the band, they cut to a commercial.
There are subliminal forces at work when consuming her past TV work through the filter of the present, as if the product was pushing the medium. A bag of Skittles tries to sell me an 808, Discover magazine, a vocoder breathalyzer mint. Lincoln Mercury: a good impression of Gary Numan.
“The sounds I created for products always seemed natural and real to me,” says Ciani. “Even though it was really a ‘heightened’ reality that I was making.”
I return to the attack of the fifty-foot weed eater on YouTube. Wearing an orange fire helmet, its nylon cord slashes blades of grass in slow motion, the violence of yard work choreographed by John Woo. Seven thousand rpms to the power of one whip. To the incredulous shrinking man, the scale is magnified by reverb, the ground level destruction required for keeping that lawn tight. I look for insects diving for cover, obliterations of antenna and thorax. The occasional ant knee that heard the vortical shred coming, now airborne with needles and twigs. It could be a new order filled for packaged souls: We’d like the sound of ant leg flying through the air after detecting material vibrations.
I go on weed-eater forums. A former employee at Crutchfield audio recommends a “noise-cancelin’ weed trimmin’ headphone,” suited for jet runways and for boxing your earbuds. One could experience the Ciani version while the live performance greens their sneakers, seduced into yard work without even knowing it. How heightened. The yard itself, another subliminal property sold.
August finds Hendersonville, North Carolina, in a dead afternoon cloudburst. I’m wandering through a hospice thrift shop after my mom and I sat over pizza confusing our beach memories. The aisle marked ELECTRONICS includes a Conair foot bath, a viewfinder, a sprinkler timer, a pet-hair eraser, an EggWave, a Noma Ornamotor (for Christmas lights) and a pulse dial phone. You can call 1980 at the toll free number at the bottom of your TV screen (second shelf) and order it all. There’s even an electric fan for disguising your voice, if you must.
A pair of Black and Decker Cutters lies on a shelf among obsolete stereo equipment. Next to the weed eaters is a “soothing sound machine” with an “ocean” button. Sticker: AS SEEN ON TV. The model is similar to the one my uncle listened to when he’d visit and stay in my room. (A former Russian code-breaker-turned-water-dowser, he’d sometimes go out and just leave the waves running all day.) I push the button but only hear the memory of an abandoned synthetic beach, the tide beneath the customer buzz. The sound of flip-flops, a woman carrying a bright orange weed eater into the downpour outside. It’s all compatible, nothing to anyone but us.
Dave Tompkins is currently writing a natural history of Miami Bass and archeopsychic bottom. His first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, is still out there, in paperback and on 99% Invisible.